Published February 10, 2014
NANJING, China – Representatives of China and Taiwan gathered Tuesday in Nanjing for their highest-level talks since their split in 1949, with representatives of the two governments preparing to meet despite Beijing's refusal to recognize the self-governing island's sovereignty.
The choice of Nanjing as the venue has special resonance because it was the capital of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalist government during the war against Mao Zedong's communists before the Nationalists were forced 65 years ago to flee the mainland for Taiwan. It also is home to the tomb of the founder of republican China, Sun Yat-sen, who is revered in both Beijing and Taipei.
China is eager to nudge the self-governing island democracy toward its eventual goal of reunification, though the Taiwanese electorate has been increasingly cool to the idea. In the meantime, the two sides have increasingly boosted their economic and cultural ties, opening investment opportunities and travel across the 150-kilometer (100-mile) Taiwan Strait, an outgrowth of a couple of decades of talks and confidence-building measures.
No official agenda has been released, but Taiwan's lead negotiator Wang Yu-chi has said he hopes to discuss setting up of permanent representative offices on each other's territory and will push for greater Taiwanese representation in international organizations — something Beijing has actively resisted.
Wang, head of Taiwan's Cabinet-level Mainland Affairs Council, is scheduled to meet with Zhang Zhijun of the Chinese Cabinet's Taiwan Affairs Office.
Beijing wants to see Taiwan ratify a trade services agreement that would allow the sides to open a wide range of businesses in each other's territory. While Beijing reveled in the signing of the pact more than six months ago, it remains stuck in Taiwan's legislature, a reflection of public fears of being overwhelmed by their giant neighbor.
Expectations for the meeting were measured. Richard Bush, a Taiwan expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., said he believe the parties mainly want to nail down their accomplishments thus far.
"My impression is that this meeting is to consolidate and ensure gains already achieved rather than to seek new ones," Bush said.
There have been indications China is eager for movement on the political front, in addition to the growing economic ties. "We cannot hand these problems down from generation to generation," Chinese President Xi Jinping told a Taiwanese envoy at an international gathering in Indonesia last year.
On the other hand, Taiwan's current pro-China president, Ma Ying-jeou of the Nationalist Party, has become increasingly unpopular and opposition to unification has been hardening despite the economic ties, with about 80 percent supporting the status quo of de-facto independence and just a sliver backing unification outright.
China is adamant that Taiwan is part of its territory and must accept its political authority, threatening to attack the island if it declares formal independence or delays unification indefinitely. It's backed up that with a military buildup aimed at disabling the island's defenses and fending off any intervention by the U.S., which is legally bound to ensure the island's security.
Despite that threat, the talks are an outgrowth of China's less-confrontational approach toward Taiwan embraced a decade ago by former president and ruling Communist Party leader Hu Jintao. Previous efforts to intimidate the self-governing island democracy — with missile firings and military exercises in 1995-1996 — or to influence its internal politics succeeded only in further alienating the electorate.
Trade has doubled since 2008 — the year Ma was elected — to $197.2 billion last year. Taiwan enjoys a $116 billion trade surplus with China, one of the few countries or regions that can boast that. Taiwanese companies have invested hundreds of billions of dollars in the mainland, with companies such as Foxconn employing millions of workers making iPhones, Playstations and other popular goods.
Taiwan also benefits heavily from an opening to Chinese tourists.